An Interview with Brontez Purnell
Brontez Purnell has spent much of his life reimagining what an American punk can be. Galvanized by the revolutionary soul force of the Riot Grrrl movement, he clawed his way out of Triana, Alabama (population around five hundred), and arrived at an Oakland, California, warehouse in 2001, at nineteen. He joined the queer electroclash band Gravy Train!!!! as a dancer; penned a zine, Fag School, which he hoped would be Sassy for gay boys; and by 2003 was making solo bedroom recordings as the Younger Lovers.
Since then, Purnell’s work has encompassed such a breadth of disciplines and ideas that it is hard not to marvel at the sheer uncontainability of it all. He studied postmodern dance and, in 2010, started the Brontez Purnell Dance Company, which spawned the supremely cool 8 mm dance film Free Jazz. His recent documentary, Unstoppable Feat, chronicled the life of dancer Ed Mock, who died of AIDS in 1986. He has written two bitingly raw, semiautobiographical novels: 2015’s Johnny Would You Love Me If My Dick Were Bigger and 2017’s Since I Laid My Burden Down, a chronicle of growing up gay and black in the American South. (Michelle Tea called it “an important American story rarely, if ever, told.”) As Purnell said to me, “I’m divinely flawed.”
I first met Purnell in February of 2018 at the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, at an event for my book on the feminist punk band the Raincoats. It wasn’t long after that Purnell suggested we start a band (I do not play an instrument) and asked—since I would be in New York—did I want to come watch Toni Morrison hand him a Whiting Award next month? Purnell, almost thirty-six at the time of this interview, is an electric, hilarious, gregarious person, and his underground star is coming into focus. It’s thrilling to hear him talk casually about the overlapping layers of his living collage—how a song inspires a dance, or a dance inspires a film, or how one band might inspire an entire life.
But despite how punk all of his work feels, Purnell’s music—which draws on surf, pop punk, girl groups, soul, and R&B—remains overlooked in the discourse on 2000s Bay Area garage rock. It hasn’t fit neatly into the narrative of its time, and it’s better for it. Its secret, bedroom-recorded world-building reminds me more of Kathleen Hanna’s 1998 Julie Ruin project than anything else you might find in—as Purnell joked in our interview—“the graveyard of an Oh Sees Pandora station.” (Purnell is himself a devout Bikini Kill fan and even has plans to write a book about the band.)
I called up Purnell one afternoon in April of 2018 to discuss his musical heritage in Alabama and the gravity of reclaiming punk, among other subjects. Two months later, I hopped two trains and a ferry to the Pines on Fire Island to meet up with Purnell again, on the last day of his BOFFO residency, where he had been working on his forthcoming book, 100 Boyfriends, which will be a longer-form effort than his other projects have been. This interview was edited from our four charged hours of conversation.
I. RIOT GRRRL
THE BELIEVER: I am sometimes hesitant to bring up Riot Grrrl in interviews. But I feel like I can definitely talk to you about Riot Grrrl because, as Layla Gibbon once said, you’re the only “riot boi.” What did Riot Grrrl do for you?
BRONTEZ PURNELL: Riot Grrrl saved my life. Reading those zines when I was a teenager saved everything. Man, I was in Alabama. And in The CD Version of the First Two Records, Kathleen Hanna was saying, “There’s no such thing as a gender analysis without a race and a class analysis. There’s no such thing as a race analysis without a gender analysis.” It’s before we started using the word intersectional. In my head, there was this trifecta of identity and what it means to be someone, but this felt so 3-D. When you’re fifteen and you’re a faggot and people are fucking with you, and someone’s like, “Being told that you’re a piece of shit and not believing it is a form of resistance”—it was really fucking rad. Riot Grrrl basically taught me that I didn’t have to kill myself. It really helped.
When I was in tenth grade, I had a teacher who said, “Gay people are a genetic mistake.” I hadn’t come out, but I knew I was gay. I wrote Kathleen Hanna a letter about it and she wrote me back. I still have the letter to this day. She was like, “Yeah, it really sucks that people are acting that way, but you’re going to get through it, you’re going to be fine,” and she sent me the first Le Tigre CD.
Before I moved to California, I lived in Indiana for a little bit. There was a band there called PANTyRAiD, who toured with Le Tigre, and I got to dance for them at their shows. At one show in Chicago, Kathleen Hanna started talking to me, and it was the first time I’d met her; I was beyond awestruck. She was like, “Hey, I remember you. Didn’t you send me a letter one time?” She told me she had saved my picture that I sent her when I was sixteen and used it as a bookmark for years. I always thought that was really, really sweet. That’s when I thought, I’m going to do this for the rest of my life.
BLVR: There’s a video on YouTube of your high school hard-core band, the Social Lies, which was a duo with a girl named Tamika. It’s an amazing punk document and, honestly, one of the coolest videos I’ve ever seen.
BP: That was so back in the day. She was two grades older than me and she was also into Kill Rock Stars. When we first met, we hated each other. It was like the school wasn’t big enough for two black Riot Grrrls. Eventually we cooled our jets and were like, “The two of us need to be friends.” My mom was really not about me playing punk shows—she thought it was too kinky, too weird—so I would get out of school and Tamika would pick me up, and we would drive across the state line and play shows in Chattanooga a lot. We were kind of thrashy. I was going through so much, recognizing that I was a weird, different person, and that band was, like, total scream therapy.
BLVR: How did you come up with the name the Social Lies?
BP: There’s this Sleater-Kinney song called “Call the Doctor” that goes [singing], “They want to socialize you. / They want to purify you,” and I was like, “Socialize—that’s a cool word. But we should split it.”
BLVR: Why else did you gravitate toward punk at that age?
BP: I always knew I was gay, and that’s probably why I gravitated toward punk. I knew there was room for that there. An older punk friend gave me the queer issue of Maximum Rocknroll, and I thought it was so crazy that there were that many gay punk people in the world somewhere. I was like, I got to meet these people. I gotta get out of here and get to where these people are. These are my people. The magazine had a photo of Vaginal Creme Davis face-fucking Bruce LaBruce with a strap-on, and Vaginal Creme Davis was dressed as a police officer. I always thought that was a really funny picture. That was fucking hilarious, actually.
All the kids in Oakland today are into electronic music and rapping, and I just can’t relate. I wasn’t the kid who was ever gonna be a rapper and be like, I’m the greatest. I’m the kid who wanted a loud guitar, and I wanted to scream my fucking head off. To this day, that’s where I feel comfortable: screaming my head off into a microphone.
II. “YOUR UNCLE PLAYED MUSIC ALL HIS LIFE. YOU SHOULD PLAY MUSIC ALL OF YOUR LIFE. IT’LL BE OK.”
BLVR: You have an uncle who was a blues musician, and you recently shared a photo of your great-great-grandfather with the caption “I come from a very long line of men who played guitar to escape the otherwise mundane conditions around them.” I’m curious to hear more about your musical heritage.
BP: My great-great-grandfather’s name was Hard Rock Charlie. He was a blues musician, and he would play the Chitlin’ Circuit, from Chattanooga on up to Chicago. One of his sons was this guy J. J. Malone, who is my great uncle. There was this blues club here in Oakland called Eli’s Mile High—it’s a punk rock club now—but in the ’70s, my uncle bought it with his friend Troyce Key. He also worked at Galaxy Records alongside Big Mama Thornton and Creedence Clearwater Revival, and he taught me guitar in bits and pieces every summer at the family reunions. His biggest hand-me-down was the 1-4-5 progression, which I took and ran with. So that’s pretty much my lineage. My grandmother is a big church-singing lady too. She’s a gospel diva in her town. She doesn’t have anything on wax, though.
BLVR: How did it feel to discover all of this information about your family?
BP: It gave me more of a sense of purpose to know that the life I’m living isn’t all that crazy and new, that someone did this before. When you’re any type of artist, there’s this assumption that it’s something you should grow out of, when you get serious and become a regular nine-to-fiver. But my mom always told me, “Your uncle played music all his life. You should play music all of your life. It’ll be OK.” That type of encouragement is really important for artists, to not believe that you’re doing something frivolous, but that you’re actually doing something relevant that narrates your life. I doubt myself at times, but I try not to get too silly with it.
BLVR: Do you remember the first time music made you see the world for what it is?
BP: I was a baby, sitting on my mom’s lap, and I saw a Prince video on VH1. Just seeing Prince singing with a guitar really caught my imagination. Who blew open more doors and questions on male sexuality in pop culture than Prince? You could tell that Prince definitely had sex.
III. YOUNGER LOVERS, OLDER HATERS
BLVR: In February 2018 I saw you speak at UCLA for the Curating Resistance: Punk as Archival Method conference, on a panel with Allison Wolfe, Donita Sparks, and Patty Schemel. You made a sharp comment about essentially being a footnote in garage rock, and not wanting your entire history to end up “in the graveyard of the Oh Sees Pandora station,” buried under all of this music made largely by white men. It was a funny moment on the panel, but it’s also heavy. Is that something you’ve thought about for a long time?
BP: It’s complicated. I’ve often wondered what it would look like if my band had a wider reach. I have a hard time saying out loud what I feel like I deserve. But I’ve noticed that the history of black people in rock and roll has been completely obscured. When you learn about that overall history, it seems weak. I always think, Is my history being erased? Do people have the full facts on me? Do I need to shout it from a rooftop just so people get it, or should I just keep making work and hope that it makes an impact?
I used to care very much about some kind of garage scene, a garage lineage. But now I can see that it’s a bunch of straight white boys—and do I really care that much? Why do I continue to make rock and roll? I’ve been having this battle with myself for the last two years. A lot of the Younger Lovers records were on a label called Southpaw, and they’re not going to be pressing records anymore, which means our records are pretty much out of print. So I wonder about my place within rock and roll.
BLVR: Was there a moment when it occurred to you that the history of black people making rock music has been so obfuscated?
BP: It’s always been in the back of my mind, but I would say it was sometime after I made [2013’s] Sugar in My Pocket. I really wanted that record to go somewhere. I wanted it to do something. It was right around the time that that movie 20 Feet from Stardom came out, about the history of these women who were background singers on all of these totally famous records. People are finally paying them, but they didn’t get the recognition they deserve until they were all in their late sixties, which is just a super long tow.
I’m always wondering if this is definitely happening to me because I’m black. Who would even be my contemporary? Who could I look up to as a rock-and-roller? Where does my band fit? My band would definitely not ever get asked to play Burger Boogaloo. We definitely would not ever get asked to play Afropunk. We don’t relate to anything around us.
BLVR: I read that Mick Collins of the Gories is your “punk deity.” What about him inspires you?
BP: There’s a girl dancing on the cover of [1989 Gories album] Houserockin’—I have her tattooed to my arm. Mick Collins was a big influence in my teenage years because he had a blues band, and it reminded me of my uncle, but if my uncle were a punk. His music was so stripped-down and smart. I sometimes wonder, What if we lived in a world where Mick Collins had made as much money as Jack White? I feel like that would have been more correct. Maybe I’m just not the biggest White Stripes fan. Most mainstream rock confuses me.
BLVR: Listening to the early Younger Lovers songs and watching the videos, it all feels so intentionally solitary. There’s an interiority to it that reminds me of Kathleen Hanna’s bedroom-pop project from 1998, Julie Ruin, too.
BP: I was still in Gravy Train!!!! when I wrote the first Younger Lovers song, “Sha-Boo-Lee.” No one was really playing rock and roll then. During the 2000s, it felt like all indie music became electronic music, at least in the scenes I was in. Rock-and-roll bands were trying to be either post-punk- or disco-oriented. In my head, I just wanted to make some simple rock-and-roll songs, some pop-punk songs. For me, it was a return to form. It felt really radical at that time. I think it was really radical at the time. I started recording Younger Lovers in 2003 with these crazy rough demos. It was a bedroom project that became really important to me. The first three records are 99 percent me, on drums, bass, guitar. I wanted something that was completely authored by me, just to see what that felt like.
BLVR: You seem like such an extroverted person to me, so the idea of you doing something completely alone is interesting.
BP: My extroverted-ness comes from deep-rooted anxiety. Sometimes when someone is a total chatterbox, it really is from being like, Oh my god, I cannot let the conversation go silent because it would be so awkward if I’m staying too quiet. It comes from nervous, pent-up energy. I can’t sit still usually. I always have to be tinkering or working on something. It’s bad to be terribly anxious, but it also gives you this fuel to burn off. If you use it right, it can be this really steady creative energy.
BLVR: The imagery of Younger Lovers is this innocence of flowers, Hula-Hoops, and ice cream, but something in it feels kind of off. It’s definitely at odds with the tone of your literary writing, which is more evil.
BP: I’ve always wanted people to notice that complexity about it. I am kind of a poetry-head, so I do think lyrics are really important. At shows I want people to dance and think.
BLVR: What lyricists have inspired your music?
BP: Allison Wolfe from Bratmobile—especially Cold Cold Hearts–era Allison Wolfe—is one of the best punk-rock lyricists ever. She has really fucking smart lyrics. They’re the right mix of obscure and direct; lightweight and funny, but deep; deep, but kind of in a rage. And Azealia Banks—she’s not a rocker, but her lyrics are so good, her timing, her meter. Her wordplay is what you always notice. I’m always hoping to be that clever.
BLVR: What do you think has made Younger Lovers different from other current garage rock?
BP: I was always focused on the art of writing the perfect two-minute pop song, with the right lyrics and just the right amount of R&B influence. I feel like other bands were making ragers. There’s that brand of garage rock that really feels closer to frat rock, if you think about it. Younger Lovers always had these subtle, smaller, more feminine elements keeping it all glued together.
I remember when Vivian Girls came out, it was this breath of fresh air, because it had been so long since people had been playing in unfiltered pop-punk bands. I remember that time feeling very hopeful with the “new garage explosion.” There was a feeling that something big or cool was going on, but I don’t think it ever got there. These days you hear the same three names whenever someone writes about that type of rock and roll: “Ty Segall, Thee Oh Sees, King Khan”—it stops there. It bores me. But I still have a lot of songs left that I want to see through to fruition before I call it any type of quits.
BLVR: With the garage-frat-rock bands, it can feel like it’s about this endurance test. But with Younger Lovers, it’s the vulnerability that grips you.
BP: As any type of performer, you’re constantly laying yourself bare for other people. At some point, it requires you to have a thick skin. It does toughen you up. A lot of my work deals intensely with vulnerability and what that means. Some people like their music to be abstract and have no plot or theme. I’m into poetry, but I’m also a dramatist. I like a story. For good literature, there has to be something at stake. I keep in that tradition.
BLVR: I was recently watching the Younger Lovers video for “Keeps On Falling Down,” which is amazing. It follows you with a group of people on the street in Oakland, presenting these different dance styles. What inspired that?
BP: My friend Gary Fembot made the video. It was right about the time that I was starting my dance company, and I lived at this warehouse where people would come over for improv dance jams all the time. I came in wanting to make a dance movie—I love ’60s go-go girl moves and any form of social line dancing. I’m obsessed with the old Soul Train dancers. I was in this African dance company for eight years, so I’m sure some of that influence is in there.
What makes that video really cool to me is the social togetherness of it all. There’s something about that video that looks like it could have been shot anywhere from the ’70s to the current day. I like when something has a certain timelessness to it, or feels classic. At the same time, the town isn’t like that anymore. That video perfectly encapsulates what this place used to feel like before the big tech boom and before the Ghost Ship fire, and before West Oakland got kind of expensive to live in.
BLVR: Where did the name Younger Lovers come from?
BP: I had gotten really obsessed with the Modern Lovers—I have no idea why—and it was a take on that. I was doing sex work and I was dating lots of older guys. Now I’m older and the boys in the band are getting younger and younger, so I should probably change the name to the Older Haters soon, because that’s what I feel like.
BLVR: Do you consider Jonathan Richman of Modern Lovers to be an influence on your writing?
BP: There was a period when I would’ve said that was true, probably about ten years ago. But when I listen to some Jonathan Richman songs now, I’m just like, This guy is such a weirdo. There’s that part of his song “Someone I Care About” where he’s like, “I don’t want some cocaine-sniffing tramp in the bar,” and part of me was like, Wait… I’m a cocaine-sniffing tramp in a bar!
What’s that about, Jonathan Richman? There’s another song [“She Cracked”] where he’s like, “I stay alone, eat health food at home,” and I totally don’t eat health food alone. I go out and have pizza. I mean, Jonathan Richman is great—I saw him at the Burger Boogaloo a couple years ago, he doesn’t look a day over thirty, and he still has so much crazy energy. I guess if you fuckin’ sit around eating health food and taking care of yourself, you’re gonna look great. I’m going to look like a really, really, really blown-out rocker. I want people to look at me and definitely know that I had a really good time. This black is definitely going to crack.
IV. “OH, WAIT, I HAVE A BEATLES TATTOO.”
BP: I want to do my next record solo, but I want a full orchestra with me. I want to go full Beatles. Say what you want about the Beatles, they got it right. Wait—Beatles or Stones?
BLVR: I don’t know. I guess the Beatles are a part of my life. The Stones just aren’t.
BP: You can get behind some Stones songs, but they kind of pulled too much shit. Who in the Rolling Stones would ever have fucking dated Yoko? Come on, we know why we love the Beatles more. I should get a Beatles tattoo—oh, wait, I have a Beatles tattoo. [Laughs]
BLVR: What’s the story behind your RIP Eleanor Rigby tattoo?
BP: My mom was a secretary when I was growing up, and she listened to weird office music all day and she would always sing “Eleanor Rigby” in the car. So I always had that song in my head, but it wasn’t until my early twenties that I realized, Oh, that’s a Beatles song. Crazy. “Eleanor Rigby” is this idea of a person who died alone and was buried with her name. I guess I’m trying to say that we’re not truly alone. Nah, Eleanor, we carrying her torch. She’s immortal.
BLVR: When did you get the pentagram tattoo on your chest?
BP: Five years ago. I’m from this rural cotton-field town in Alabama, and when I tried to move away, my mom was hysterical. When I first got into punk rock, I think she feared for my life. I was already obviously gay. And I was black. I think she thought, Oh, and now he’s listening to white-people music. Oh god. He’s going to be a target his whole life. She’s way cool now. My mom is the best.
But somehow when I was gonna move away from Alabama, she told everyone in town that I was moving away with white devil-worshippers. And so my last night in Alabama, I was working at this catfish and barbecue restaurant, and my friends were supposed to move me to Chattanooga. And thirteen members of my family showed up with cameras and Bibles. I got into the car to leave with my friends and they all jumped the car and yanked me out; they started beating up my friends; my cousin was punching me in the neck—she was like, “Have you forgotten God? Have you forgotten how to pray?”
It started raining and then the police showed up and the policeman was horrible. He was like, “You’re hurting your mother. Are you really going to move away?” And I was like, “I’m eighteen years old. Do I really have to stay here?” And the cop was like, “Well, he’s eighteen. He can do what he wants.” Luckily, my friends—this is why I still fuck with white punks—my white punk friends, even after getting beat up by a bunch of angry black Christians, still waited for me in the parking lot. What was funny was, after I left, people in town would come up to my mom and be like, “Whatever happened to your son that ran off with them white devil worshippers? Is he OK?”
BLVR: You have the word Resist tattooed across your heart. How do you feel resistance is manifesting in your current work?
BP: Girl, honey, with the couple of years we’ve been having, sometimes the fact that I even leave the bed is resistance to me. I don’t know how I get anything done. I’ve been pretty sad for a long time. Sometimes I feel like I’m sleepwalking. Sometimes I look at things I’ve made and I don’t remember how I made it or how it happened. I’m a joyful person by nature, but resistance looks a lot of ways. I make stuff that kind of gives a middle finger to convention, but sometimes I feel that just making it to the bagel shop and getting back home is resistance. Lately, sometimes I stay in bed a lot longer than I dare. Part of it is just resting. You’re resting because you know there’s a big fight ahead.
V. PUNK, ET CETERA
BLVR: There are a lot of punk references in Younger Lovers—a song called “Poseur,” or images in videos of skateboarding or a Ramones T-shirt, for example. What is it about messing with classic punk tropes that’s appealing to you?
BP: I’m essentially representing myself in videos that I wish I’d seen as a teenager. When I first got into punk, it was just so white and so straight. So part of it is that this is being authored by a person of color who is queer, who is also placing stakes in these tropes that are normally considered to be white or male. It kind of lets these things breathe, and helps reimagine what anyone can do. People have come up and told me too—random black queens on the internet who are like, “Oh, yeah, I saw this when I was a teenager and I felt seen” or “I felt like you were talking specifically to me,” and part of me is like, I was talking to you, queen. I’m talking to everybody, really.
BLVR: Thinking about the act of reclaiming punk, or reclaiming rock—do you feel the gravity of that in your songs?
BP: There’s a gravity to it, for sure. I have a song called “Get Up Get Up (Love Makes My Heart Beat Faster).” There’s one part, and whenever I sing it onstage, I get choked up a little: “Will I be anything? Will I be nothing at all? / The question wastes time. / I focus, get the chores done.” There’s something about it that feels steeped in so much history. I don’t think about something in terms of how it is now; I’m always thinking of what it will become one day. I’m always thinking, Well, if I keep doing this, what is this going to look like ten years from now? In ten years, will this be easier? Will this be exponentially harder? Will it be worth knowing about? I think about art as this marathon that I’m running.
BLVR: How do you keep running the marathon?
BP: It’s hard. It helps that I have other artistic interests. I could never just play rock-and-roll music and be happy. It’s fun and it’s rad, but there are definitely limits to it. A couple of years ago, I hit this weird glass ceiling with it. But I guess I’m just going to stay glued to the glass ceiling and keep pressing on.
Sometimes when I wonder why this band never got bigger—we still have not done an official American tour—I think, I don’t know, I’m a loudmouthed black faggot. Do I really want to take this band through Middle America in the Trump era? Probably not. I have to say, with Gravy Train!!!!, in the Bush years, we were wildin’. But there’s no way you could get me into a bar in Nebraska, walking around in a jockstrap again. That was definitely my youth. These days I’m very apprehensive.
BLVR: How did you come to join Gravy Train!!!! as a dancer, anyway?
BP: I had known Seth [Bogart, a.k.a. Hunx of Gravy Train!!!!] since I was a teenager. Me and him met on a Kill Rock Stars message board and used to trade zines when he was in Arizona and I was in Alabama. A year before I moved to California, him and Heather and Carolina started Gravy Train!!!! and they asked, “Hey, would you come be a dancer?”
I was young and queer. It just seemed so fun and different. Before that, I used to go-go dance in this band Veronica Lipgloss and the Evil Eyes. They took me on a tour up the West Coast, and we got stuck on the Pacific Coast Highway near Portland; some part of the highway got shut down due to a fallen tree. I remember it was five of us—a bunch of fags and queers and dykes—just on the highway, dancing in our underwear. The traffic, backed up for miles, was just honking. They were loving it. When you’re young, you feel like you can do anything. Later, I started playing guitar and recorded some songs.
BLVR: What else did you learn from being in Gravy Train!!!!? Did it give you any perspective?
BP: I joined that band, and a month later I had a passport and I was flying to England. In one year, I went from sitting at my mom’s house, staring at walls in rural Alabama, to all of a sudden being on a stage in England in my underwear, dancing around with super-cute boys. It’s such a crazy mindfuck. I think it’s a lot of the reason I went crazy and overboard with the partying. When you’re in your twenties, and there’s a bunch of drugs, a bunch of booze, boys, you’re gonna wild out. How do you come down from that? How do you settle back into society? After you have that much stimulation that early, can you ever have a normal life? Where you’re like, Oh, I’m just really chill and I drink tea? Even when I want to feel that way, I never feel that way. I’ve always seen that era of my life as this intense, Call of the Wild–style way of learning about people and myself and seeing the world. It still blows my mind when I think about it.
VI. SENSITIVE, BEAUTIFUL, TALENTED, SELF-DESTRUCTIVE
BLVR: You held a séance for Kurt Cobain at a recent Younger Lovers show. What’s your favorite Nirvana song?
BLVR: What was the séance like?
BP: It was the twenty-four-year anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death. I had done one in eighth grade with these headbanger girls under the staircase at school, and this time I was like, “Oh my god, we totally have to do this séance.” I asked everybody to bring black lighters and black candles, but then the guy at the venue was like, “You totally can’t light candles in a music venue.” So I had them turn on their lighters. I did a little speech for him: “Kurt, if you’re in the other realm and can hear us, just know that I’ve never been white, blond, skinny, dead, or talented, but your existence really resonates with me. Please hear us.” I hope he heard.
BLVR: What about his existence resonates with you?
BP: This is gonna sound gross, but I’m a sucker for blue eyes. He was sensitive, he was beautiful, he was talented, he was self-destructive. Every time I look in the mirror, all I see is Kurt Cobain.
BLVR: You’ve been here on Fire Island working on your next book, 100 Boyfriends. What will it be like?
BP: It’s about how every time you date someone, you’re dating the ghost of everyone else they dated. There’s this line in the book: “Between two men, there can be 100 ghosts in the room.” It’s just about shit we carry from every interaction, or, as someone else put it to me, how affect travels. I usually write short, punchy stuff, but I wanted to explore long forms. This book is gonna be really different. I’ve had a lot of fucked-up relationships with men. This is kind of about me finally putting that to rest, like: You know what, the problem is me. [Laughs] Let me delve into gay male dysfunction in relationships. And how you find the boyfriend within.
BLVR: That’s kind of hopeful.
BP: Yeah. It’s about time. I feel like every book I’ve written has been an exorcism. If you want to expel a demon, you have to call it out first. Let’s say you’ve always had a fucking horrible time dating people, and you just want to realize what that is without vilifying other people or yourself. Just thinking, OK, I’m sick of this period. How do I move to the next?
BLVR: Has working on the book helped you figure it out?
BP: No. All the questions I’m always trying to answer—they take a lifetime to answer. I feel like my books are a snapshot of a season or cycle in this ongoing conversation. I’m about to be thirty-six, and the longest relationship I’ve ever had was, like, four months, and two of those months were really questionable. [Laughs] I’ll be on Facebook and there’s all these fags that I knew in my twenties and they’re like, Oh, me and so-and-so got married today, like last year literally nine faggots I used to know were sitting at city hall with their husbands, and I’m like: I can’t even own a fucking houseplant. That’s also what 100 Boyfriends is about.
BLVR: It seems like it’s about validating the reality that things are usually imperfect, in a way.
BP: A mistake can become a style. It can really work. I’ve had several people try to polish me. For 100 Boyfriends, I’m trying to get it on a major publisher. But in the past my publishers have let me do whatever I wanted. Johnny never would have come out on anything major. They would never have let it have that title. Now that I’m trying to go to this bigger place, I’m like, Are they just gonna edit me down? There’s this question of, How do we take this voice and make it marketable to a larger crowd? and, like… you’re never, ever going to make my voice marketable to a larger crowd.
I was writing columns for SF Weekly in 2016, and the editor that hired me let me write whatever I wanted. Then a couple of my articles pissed some people off because I was writing about crazy shit. I wrote a story about flashing my dick onstage. I wrote another story about incest play I was doing with this older daddy in the Castro district, like getting blindfolded and tied up. The fact that that ever even got printed is beyond me. The main editor brought me to his office and was just like, “Well, Brontez, we really like you, you’re really edgy! But how can I, as a straight white man, connect to what you’re writing?” And I was just like… I don’t know? I literally don’t know. I killed the bank—I don’t think they’re gonna do that shit again.
BLVR: So are you going to try navigating a larger publisher, if they attempt to rein in your voice?
BP: I feel like I should. I’d love to have some money. But how would you really do that? It’s funny; we were talking about the Slits, right? Did you know the Slits and Grace Jones were on the same record label?
BLVR: Yeah, Island Records.
BP: In Grace Jones’s book, which is awesome, she was talking about how she moved from Island to a major label, but she was like: “I wish I had just stayed at Island the whole time. Island was amazing. I had all this freedom.” I value my freedom so much, but I feel like if I’m too free, I’m going to be poor the rest of my life.
BLVR: It seems worth the risk to at least try bringing something unconventional to a big publisher.
BP: Because who’s leading it? Doesn’t the conglomerate choose what the public is going to consume? Is it the consumer or the person who’s making it that determines it? Who sat in a corporate room and was just like, “Yeah, punk rock. This is gonna take off”?
BLVR: How do you want your books to make people feel?
BP: I want people to walk away with a sense of triumph. The characters are struggling through crazy shit, but they’re still never too cool to laugh at themselves. They’re just trying. To be honest, I think my art damages me. I went on a book tour and I read Burden to people every day for a week, and I realized, Whoa, this is hard. These are really hard things to read. My new documentary is about this guy Ed Mock who died of AIDS; it’s hard to watch. I definitely deal with really, really heavy themes.
Last year I would come home drunk and try to read my books. I wrote them and then didn’t read them because they were so hard for me. I would be reading and think, Oh, that’s clever. That’s funny. Oh, I did that. It was like revisiting a dream. I was completely sober when I wrote those books, but going back was like going back to a blackout that I had forgotten. They were these things I was obsessed with. It’s hard when there’s so much of your soul in something. It makes you revisit things that you probably don’t need to revisit on a sunny Tuesday. But I wanted to write about hard themes. It helps. I guess it’s the only way to get through it.
BLVR: I read an interview where you referenced a quote on the insert of a Bikini Kill/Huggy Bear split twelve-inch—
BP: “We endorse the use of lies but not at the expense of truth.”
BLVR: Yes. How would you characterize the truth of your books?
BP: I always want to protect people. In my writing, no one is ever themselves. I mixtape personalities. I mixtape the situation and turn it inside out. So it’s truly fiction.
BLVR: Like remixing reality.
BP: You have to.
BLVR: Any other dreams?
BP: Night before last, I dreamed I was trying to get fried chicken, and then I was riding in a car with my cousin and his friends and we slammed into a fucking building. I can fly at will in my dreams, when I’m paying attention… but this last period of my dream life has been me free-falling. I keep having dreams of being in the back of the school bus and falling off of cliffs. I have no idea.
BLVR: Do you often feel like an outsider among outsiders?
BP: Sometimes I feel like people get a prize for being monogamous. Whereas if you have a polyamorous-ass art career, I don’t think any of your work ever gets centered. When you do a lot of different things, that’s how people treat it: “Oh, you’re just fringe everything.” Why can’t you be everything? There’s that saying “Jack of all trades, master of none,” but then there’s the second part: “but oftentimes better than master of one.” That’s the full saying. You can Wikipedia that, true story. So that’s how I feel. People always tell me they “stumbled upon” me, but I would love to be centered.
Sometimes I feel like, Have I been in the counterculture too long, where everything has just been so raw and wild? I’m always trying to fit in with other gay men who have zero reference for my life. The other night at my film screening I was so nervous that I got completely blacked out for a second. I make it to these respectable gay-male circles, and I just revert back to my teenage punk behavior. I literally need to go to finishing school.
BLVR: What unites all the work you do?
BP: I want to say a DIY spirit. To quote my mother, I don’t have any better sense than to think I can do something. It was always like: I want to be in a band, so I’m going to be really bad at it for a long time. But eventually I’ll get better. You always get better if you keep trying. I really believe that.
BLVR: When I saw you talk at UCLA back in February, you said part of the reason you wanted to start writing was to prove to yourself that you could transform. How did it feel to transform?
BP: I had only ever written for zines, but I had been playing music a long time. It’s hard being in a small bubble like Oakland and watching other bands—that you know you influenced—make more money and get more popular, while you still struggle. What else could I do to prove to myself that I’m an artist? What’s my other love? What’s something that’s a more contained practice? So I wrote. I didn’t feel like there was any other choice. I had to do something else. I’m looking at that [points to copy of Johnny] right now, and it still surprises me. I was such a fucking mess when that happened. But it happened.
I’m still always thinking about what I could become. Sometimes I think about the Younger Lovers, and my hope is that twenty years from now, anyone—a girl, a black faggot—will walk up and be like, “Oh, that really helped me,” or “Oh, that was my favorite thing.” Art is like a message in a bottle. You’re just throwing it in the ocean, hoping someone gets it. And sometimes you feel like the only thing you get is criticism or negativity.
Yesterday I was at the harbor [in the Pines on Fire Island] and they kept playing Amy Winehouse. She was one of my favorites and she died. Did she die because she was surrounded by negativity? Did she know how many people loved her and understood her? The day Amy Winehouse died, my mom called me and was like, “You know, it’s just real sad. Don’t you kill yo’self, because people might not care if you do it.” I thought that was really funny. It kept me alive. I knew what my mom was talking about. Sometimes I want to quit, but I’m not satisfied, and I don’t think enough people know yet. I want to throw a couple more bottles.